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Water leaks from within a building and the damage they cause are a risk to any facility, 24-7-365. Every commercial structure in America is vulnerable to the threat of water damage caused by leaks. The result: One trillion gallons of water is lost to leaks each year nationwide (residential and commercial data), according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — the cause of $10 billion to $15 billion in annual insurance claims.
Domestic water plumbing, HVAC or process liquid leaks occur daily in a broad range of facilities nationwide. Essentially, every building is at risk of water damage from undetected leaks — water in the wrong place can easily lead to serious, very expensive problems.
And without some means of early detection, by the time a leak is discovered, it’s often too late; the damage has begun. Of course, there’s the risk posed by water to tenants, building infrastructure and data systems. Yet, the downstream threat of mold growth can be of greater concern.
Water damage can come from a wide range of sources, such as a burst water pipe; corroded or frozen sprinkler systems; clogged drains; leaking fixtures, faucets or toilets; or leakage from outside.
Global insurer Zurich Insurance Group claims data indicates that undetected water leakage in buildings remains one of the leading drivers of noncatastrophic property losses from both a frequency and severity standpoint.
The longer a leak persists, the greater the potential impact of water damage, the insurer notes, which can harm a building’s structure, incur costly repairs and replacement costs, force relocation of employees or tenants, create business interruption, require mold mitigation expenses, and even cause reputational damage.
The best way to reduce the potential for damage is to use technology designed to detect and stop the uncontrolled water flow. Products that help to accomplish this include water sensors, notification systems and alarms, and automatic shut-off valves. Among the many advantages of these components and systems is they can be installed in hard-to-reach places to provide consistent, round-the-clock monitoring.
What’s at Risk?
Leak detection is a straightforward task, yet with many variations according to need and technology that varies according to its mission. The first step to safeguarding a facility from the risks of water damage is to choose a solution that fits the potential for risk.
Within commercial facilities, large domestic water systems, HVAC and hydronic systems, fire-suppression sprinkler networks and process fluid systems contain large volumes of water — many of which are pressurized. Pressure sustains the flow of fluids even if there’s a leak.
After careful consideration of the potential sources — and risks — of leakage, facility managers will want to consider who is using the water, or what systems or technologies are connected to it, as well as the consequences if the source of water is shut off.
Answers to these questions should help facility managers or building owners determine what leak detection and prevention technologies to employ. After all, systems today are capable of merely warning of a leakage (even if minimal), but also can be programmed to shut off the water supply to specific equipment, areas of a building or even the entire facility.
In addition, leak detection and prevention technology can automatically send notifications and diagnostic information to any number of recipients; they can even integrate with building automation systems or security systems.
Leak Detection, Applied
The Detection Group, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., revealed that one of its larger accounts is a real estate holdings and development firm, a company with a portfolio of 80-plus Class A office and mixed-use commercial buildings in 13 states.
Six years ago, the firm approached The Detection Group to test its technology in a few locations. After rigorous appraisal of the effectiveness of Trident detection technology, insurance managers decided not only to standardize on the system but also to protect their real estate holdings.
“Building managers — now more than ever — are turning to sensors and cloud systems to provide remote, actionable information on their properties,” explains Laurie Conner, president of The Detection Group. “Our technology can watch hundreds of locations within a single building or many buildings, and provide facility managers with the peace of mind that their buildings are protected.”
She adds: “Even in instances when the power to a facility shuts down, our leak detection system has its own power source. This ensures priority alerts are sent by SMS, phone and email so the right people are contacted immediately, no matter when or where a water leak is detected.”
When maintenance staff is off duty or on vacation, the leak detection system also is capable of temporarily changing the notiﬁcation so whoever’s on call gets the message.
Unobtrusive, Wireless, Reliable
Trident is one of several leak detection technologies specifically designed to serve commercial and industrial facilities. Typically, leak sensors are discreetly placed anywhere throughout a building to provide complete coverage in virtually any ﬂoor plan. Existing buildings are easily retrofitted, or the technology can be installed during new construction.
System detectors provide:
Audible alarm and wireless alerts;
A pre-alarm period minimizing false alarms by allowing a person to cancel notification messages;
Manual override and timed reset;
5-plus year lithium battery life;
Reports when battery life is low to ensure continuous operation.
A facility may face situations where it may need more than a point sensor to protect a larger area within a building or for critical or hard-to-reach areas. The system’s water leak-sensing cable detects water anywhere along its length for area or perimeter coverage. Applications may penetrate walls in chase areas, or the cable may be used to surround air handlers, chillers and water heaters.
The cable also could lay across pans and subﬂoors, extend under refrigerators and dishwashers, or be used to monitor inaccessible subfloor areas.
Always On, Always Sensing
Even round-the-clock facilities staff can’t be everywhere at once, so if there’s a leak, time is the enemy. For this reason, advanced leak detection systems include valve controllers and valve system sensors to quickly and automatically shut off the water service.
“Typically, facility managers can deﬁne a water leak exclusion zone of any size with one or many sensors by installing a valve on water lines near areas such as tenant pantries, limited access areas, archival storage, laboratories and clinical rooms, mission-critical areas and around high voltage equipment,” Conner notes. “Of course, it only makes sense that a facility manager can define rules to trigger automatic valve closure.”
Most commercial-grade leak detection technologies begin with a network of wireless sensors installed throughout a building. These sensors detect water leaks and immediately communicate their precise location and status through a secure radio frequency (RF) network to a cloud platform.
As soon as a Trident device senses water where it shouldn’t be, an audible alarm is triggered and uses its own secure RF network throughout the building to send out real-time phone, email and text alerts so facility managers can take action. For an extra layer of protection, automated shut-off valves — with predetermined protocol — can take action by shutting off water flow at the very first hint of a leak.
A real estate holdings company with more than 80 Class A office and mixed-use commercial buildings chose to protect its buildings with the FM-approved Trident wireless water leak detection system. Today, leak protection technology guards more than 23 million square feet of its commercial building assets.
“Why is it that water leaks always come in the middle of the night, and Friday nights at that?” asks a baffled manager of the firm. “Some of our acquired properties require cosmetic and functional innovations that create high-quality and sought-after tenant experiences. This includes flexible layouts, collaborative workspaces and fitness centers; all are hallmarks of our properties.”
However, he explains that through “bad experience, we learned how important leak protection is. Today, the technology is a competitive, unique selling point for us and helps to define us as a leader in the category. It instantly alerts us if there’s a water leak — and precisely where the leak can be found.”
Learning from Experience
Like many commercial real estate organizations, The Detection Group’s real estate account lived with the risk and reality of water leak damage over the years. However, it wasn’t until 2016 that water damage events began to escalate in terms of frequency, cost and tenant disruption:
A water heater tank on top of a 24-floor building ruptured one Friday evening. All 24 floors suffered damage as water made its way to the lobby over the weekend.
Late at night, 18 floors of another building had water leak damage, including flooded elevator shafts.
Several other disruptive and expensive water leak events occurred in the following couple of years; the effect of these events laid the foundation for the installation of Trident wireless water leak detection. Today, the technology is a mandatory requirement for all tenants at all their facilities.
How to Avoid Wet Real Estate
Another of The Detection Group’s accounts, also a real estate holdings firm with many millions of square feet as their responsibility, found its way to leak detection technology in a similar fashion.
The crucible moment happened when a security guard reported the emergency: no vandals or burglars — it was water flooding the basement, flowing from a leak seven floors above.
The property in Santa Monica, Calif., suffered extensive damage. These days, the facility manager shares the experience with tenants who’re not yet using water leak detection equipment and technology.
In another instance, one of its real estate firm’s holdings in San Diego reported eight water leaks in only one year.
“It doesn’t matter the industry — commercial, multi-housing, manufacturing — every building will have a leak,” notes one of the real estate firm’s managers, drawing from 35 years of experience in the field.
Today, it, too, has standardized on wireless water leak detection, web-based reporting and automatic water shut-off valves from The Detection Group. It continues to implement leak sensors across all properties, often installing companion shut-off valves that turn off the water when a leak is detected.
“With leak detection, you’re solving a problem before it happens and diminishing an issue before it gets big, expensive and painful,” Conner adds.